Casey Janssen is a fidgety ball of nervous energy on the mound.
And as recently as seven weeks ago, many Toronto Blue Jays fans were equally edgy when he pitched.
But in a season where so much has gone wrong with the Blue Jays' pitching staff, Janssen has been the club's most pleasant surprise. Since being named interim closer on May 9, the six-foot-three, 225-pound right-hander has converted all eight of his save opportunities through June 26.
And with no timetable for closer Sergio Santos's return from the shoulder issues that have sidelined him since April 21, the "interim" tag can probably be removed. Even if Santos does come back, Janssen has been so effective that it will be difficult to oust him from the ninth-inning role.
I was one of many to question the Jays' decision to hand the closer's job to Janssen. This is the California native's sixth big-league season and he's not your prototypical, flame-throwing closer who strikes out batters at will. And as good as Janssen's statistics looked last season (6-0, 2.26 earned-run average in 55 games), he allowed a whopping 48 per cent of inherited runners to score. The league average is around 29 per cent.
In 2011, batters also hit .346 against him with two outs and runners in scoring position and were 5-for-9 off him with runners on second and third or the bases loaded. In other words, he didn't pitch well in clutch situations.
These daunting statistics, coupled with the fact that coming out of spring training he appeared to be the Jays' fifth bullpen option behind Santos, Francisco Cordero, Darren Oliver and Jason Frasor, made the decision to anoint him the closer puzzling.
But I underestimated Janssen. The 30-year-old reliever has been outstanding since assuming the ninth-inning duties. In his eight saves, he has allowed just two hits, struck out eight and walked just one in 7 2/3 innings.
The new Tom Henke?
So the question is, how has Janssen, who previously added drama to the club's seventh and eighth innings, suddenly evolved into Tom Henke?
One of the keys to his success is that his velocity has been strong. His fastball has averaged 91.5 miles per hour this season vs. 90.8 mph over the course of his career. And at 90.1 mph, his cutter, which he has thrown far more frequently in recent years, is clocking at nearly one full mph over his career average. His arsenal also includes a curveball, which he uses sparingly but effectively, and a changeup.
But more important than his velocity is he's throwing strikes and isn't allowing many baserunners. Heading into a June 27 game against the Boston Red Sox, Janssen had yet to walk a batter in June, and is striking out an impressive 5.6 batters for every walk he issues. This has helped him register a career-best .910 WHIP (Walks and Hits Per Innings Pitched), which ranks him fourth amongst American League closers.
That manager John Farrell has almost exclusively used him at the beginning of an inning has also helped him thrive. Since being named closer, Janssen has been brought in at the start of the inning in seven of his eight save opportunities, eliminating any chance of a recurrence of his problems with inherited runners scoring.
So can Janssen keep this up? Well, based on his track record, it's unlikely he'll continue to be this good. Opponents are hitting a meagre .236 against him on balls in play (BABIP). His career BABIP is .298, which is around the league average. His low BABIP this season would seem to indicate that there has been some luck involved and that some of the balls hit off of him have been hit right at infielders.
As a general rule, a pitcher's BABIP tends to trend towards the league average, meaning that some of those balls hit to infielders are bound to find holes in the future.
That said, Janssen's performance since assuming the closer's role has been excellent. In February, Janssen signed a two-year, $5.9-million US contract that includes a $4-million option for 2014. At the time, the contract seemed exorbitant for a replaceable fifth bullpen option, but with Janssen thriving as a closer, it now seems like another prescient move by Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos.
It wouldn't be fair to expect Janssen to continue to pitch at this level, but his performance over the past seven weeks has proven his naysayers - including myself - wrong. And thanks to his success, nervous Blue Jays fans have become less fidgety when the strike-throwing right-hander is on the mound.
Do you have improvements to suggest for this page?